Giving The Finger in Ancient Greek

Since we are all about to be rendered powerless by shameless show trials, why not wrest back for ourselves a gesture appropriate to the tenor of our times.

In Aristophanes’ Peace a rude hand gesture is mentioned (549):

Καὶ τὸν δορυξὸν οἷον ἐσκιμάλισεν.

Perseus’ translation (“this sickle-maker is thumbing his nose at the spear-maker?” ) may not do justice to the gesture or its meaning. Ancient commentary glosses this in a slightly different way. (See this site for a reference to the digitus impudicus in the Clouds)

Schol ad Ar. Pax. 549

Eskimálisen: “instead of he stuck his finger up” for to skimalísai is properly to shove a finger into a bird’s anus. But when people wish to insult someone, they extend their middle finger, retract the rest, and show it.”

ἐσκιμάλισεν: ἀντὶ τοῦ “κατεδακτύλισεν”· σκιμαλίσαι γάρ ἐστι κυρίως τὸ τὸν δάκτυλον εἰς τὸν πρωκτὸν τοῦ ὀρνέου βαλεῖν. οὐ μόνον δὲ τοῦτο, ἀλλὰ καὶ ὅταν βουλόμενοι ἐφυβρίσαι τινὰ τὸν μέσον δάκτυλον ἐντείνοντες καὶ τοὺς λοιποὺς συνάγοντες δείξωσιν αὐτόν.

Apart from loving this passage’s instructions about how to give a middle finger, I am intrigued by the fact that Greeks gave the middle finger at all and by the chance that the reference to a bird’s anus might provide an amusing folk etymology for why we call it the “bird”. But, first and foremost, we can learn why the Greeks gave the finger.

A popular article in Slate claims that the middle finger is offensive because it is phallic, so sticking it up is like rudely showing someone a penis. Wikipedia says it is all about sexual intercourse. The Greek evidence, however, indicates that while phallic meaning is operative, what one does with the threatened phallus is truly insulting (at hubris levels even!). So, let’s go through some of the extant evidence.

We have some confirmation of the synonymy the scholion indicates between giving the middle finger and sticking a finger in an anus:

Phrynichus, 83.15

Katadaktulizein: “to wantonly touch through the rectum with a finger. Attic Greeks use the term skimalizein.

καταδακτυλίζειν: τὸ ἀσελγῶς τῷ δακτύλῳ τῆς τοῦ πέλας ἕδρας ἅπτεσθαι. τοῦτο καὶ σκιμαλίζειν οἱ ᾿Αττικοὶ λέγουσιν.

The Suda provides a gloss on an adjective related to this verb:

Katadaktulikos: a phrase for wanting to penetrate the anus’s sphincter.

Καταδακτυλικός: ἀντὶ τοῦ συνουσιαστικὸς κατὰ τοῦ δακτυλίου τοῦ πρωκτοῦ.

There is also a proverb recorded that repeats much of the same material as we find in the scholion.

Michal. Apostol. Parom. 7.98

“You should get fingered” : [This is a proverb applied] for those worthy of insult. For skimalísai means when someone wants to insult someone, people raise their middle finger, retract the rest, and show it. Properly, this indicates shoving a finger into a bird’s anus.”

     ᾿Εσκιμαλίχθαι σε χρή: ἐπὶ τῶν ἀξίων ὕβρεως· σκιμαλίσαι δὲ λέγεται, ὅταν βουλόμενος ἐνυβρίσαι τινὰ τὸν μέσον δάκτυλον ἐντείναντες καὶ τοὺς λοιποὺς συνάγοντες ἐνδείξωσιν αὐτῷ· κυρίως δὲ λέγεται τὸ τὸν δάκτυλον εἰς τὸν πρωκτὸν τοῦ ὀρνέου βαλεῖν.

Picture
Image from thefinger.org

The Suda pretty much provides the same information but with an opening alternative:

Eskimalisen: [This is when] one insults by joining thumb and middle finger and striking them. Or, instead it means to give the finger [katedaktulise]: for “to finger” is, properly, to place your middle finger into a bird’s anus. But it is not only this: whenever people want to insult someone, they stretch out their middle finger, withdraw the rest, and show it. So Aristophanes says: “[see] how he fingered the spear-maker.”

Ἐσκιμάλισεν: τῷ μέσῳ δακτύλῳ συναρμόσας τὸν μέγαν καὶ πλήξας ἐφυβρίζει. ἢ ἀντὶ τοῦ κατεδακτύλισε: σκιμαλίσαι γάρ ἐστι κυρίως τὸ μέσον τὸν δάκτυλον εἰς τὸν πρωκτὸν τοῦ ὀρνέου ἐμβαλεῖν. οὐ μόνον δὲ τοῦτο, ἀλλὰ καὶ ὅταν βουλόμενοι ἐνυβρίσαι τινά, τὸν μέσον δάκτυλον ἐντείνοντες καὶ τοὺς λοιποὺς συνάγοντες δείξωσιν αὐτῷ. Ἀριστοφάνης: καὶ τὸν δορυξὸν οἷον ἐσκιμάλισεν.

In another entry we find a more abstract use of the verb with several options for translation. (There is also an explanation about why people are sticking fingers in birds.) Don’t sleep on the Suda: the entry combines agricultural information with an anecdote from philosophy:

Skimalisô: “I treat as nothing; I mock; I grab with a little finger as I would a woman’s ass”. Skimalizein means to examine with a little finger, to see if chickens are about to lay eggs.

When two men were resting above at one of Zeno’s drinking parties, and the one below him was sticking his foot in the other’s ass, and Zeno was doing the same thing to him with his knee, he turned around and said, “what kind of pain do you think you were causing the man below you?”

Σκιμαλίσω: ἐξουδενώσω, χλευάσω, τῷ μικρῷ δακτύλῳ ὡς τῶν γυναικείων πυγῶν ἅψομαι. λέγεται δὲ σκιμαλίζειν κυρίως τὸ τῷ μικρῷ δακτύλῳ ἀποπειρᾶσθαι, εἰ ᾠοτοκοῦσιν αἱ ἀλεκτορίδες. δυοῖν ὑπερανακειμένοιν ἐν πότῳ τοῦ Ζήνωνος, καὶ τοῦ ὑπ’ αὐτὸν τὸν ὑφ’ ἑαυτὸν σκιμαλίζοντος τῷ ποδί, αὐτὸς ἐκεῖνον τῷ γόνατι. ἐπιστραφέντος δέ, τί οὖν, οἴει, τὸν ὑποκάτω σου πάσχειν ὑπὸ σοῦ;

The entries from the Suda are pretty far removed from the time of Aristophanes’ Peace (only 1500 years or so). Although the steady tradition from the scholia through the lexicographers indicates some consistency, we still need a little more to help flesh this out.

So, a final piece of evidence to wrap this all up. One of the words for the middle finger in Attic Greek is καταπύγων (a meaning attested by both Photius and Hesychius: Καταπύγων: ὁ μέσος δάκτυλος).  This word, when not referring to fingers, generally indicates someone “given to unnatural lust” (LSJ) or one who is lecherous, derived from the preposition kata and the noun pugê (buttocks, ass). The point, if I may, is that the middle finger in this colloquialism is directly associated with something that goes deep in the buttocks.

To stay with the assertion in Slate, as the largest finger, the middle finger raised does seem to have a phallic association, but in the Greek usage at least the showing of such a phallic symbol is a threat of its use. Based on the association of the gesture and the word for the middle finger with “wantonness”, the gesture threatens deep anal penetration, a threat like Catullus’ pedicabo (“I will sexually violate your ass”). Google searches will find this answer, but without the pleasant lexical tour!

Image result for ancient greek chicken vase
A FALISCAN BLACK-GLAZED ASKOS | CIRCA 4TH CENTURY B.C. | Ancient Art & Antiquities Auction | Ancient Art & Antiquities, vases | Christie’s from Pinterest

But lest you fear that the gesture is now too base and vulgar to be used, no less a luminary than the philosopher Diogenes employed it:

Diogenes Flips off Demosthenes (Diogenes Laertius, 6.34 and 35)

Once, when some foreigners wanted to see Demosthenes, he put up his middle finger, and said, “this is the Athenian demagogue!”

ξένων δέ ποτε θεάσασθαι θελόντων Δημοσθένην, τὸν μέσον δάκτυλον ἐκτείνας, “οὗτος ὑμῖν,” ἔφη, “ἐστὶν ὁ ᾿Αθηναίων δημαγωγός.”

 “[Diogenes] used to say that most people were a single finger away from insanity. If someone walks around holding out his middle finger, he seems nuts. But if he is holding his index, he doesn’t.”

τοὺς πλείστους ἔλεγε παρὰ δάκτυλον μαίνεσθαι· ἐὰν οὖν τις τὸν μέσον προτείνας πορεύηται, δόξει μαίνεσθαι, ἐὰν δὲ τὸν λιχανόν, οὐκέτι.

See also Jeffrey Henderson, The Maculate Muse (New Haven, 1975).

Thanks to Justin Arft and Matt Farmer for comments on an earlier version of this.

Suda Online, epsilon 3150; kappa 516; sigma 606

 

Lucky By Nature

Aristotle, Eudemian Ethics 1247b

“If certain people are good natured—just as some musical people who do not know how to sing yet are still born for it—and without any logical training are inclined towards basic nature and desire what is right in the time and way that is right, such people will find success even if they are really irrational fools just as some people may sing well even though they don’t know how to teach it. People who are generally successful without thinking about it are lucky like this. Based on this, we can say they are lucky by nature.”

εἰ δή τινές εἰσιν εὐφυεῖς (ὥσπερ οἱ ᾠδικοὶ οὐκ ἐπιστάμενοι ᾄδειν οὕτως εὖ πεφύκασι) καὶ ἄνευ λόγου ὁρμῶσιν ᾗ ἡ φύσις πέφυκε καὶ ἐπιθυμοῦσι καὶ τούτου καὶ τότε καὶ οὕτως ὡς δεῖ καὶ οὗ δεῖ καὶ ὅτε, οὗτοι κατορθώσουσι κἂν τύχωσιν ἄφρονες ὄντες καὶ ἄλογοι, ὥσπερ καὶ εὖ ᾄσονται οὐ διδασκαλικοὶ ὄντες. οἱ δέ γε τοιοῦτοι εὐτυχεῖς, ὅσοι ἄνευ λόγου κατορθοῦσιν ὡς ἐπὶ τὸ πολύ. φύσει ἄρα οἱ εὐτυχεῖς εἶεν ἄν.

E123869
A juggler in a gradual, Harley MS 4951, f. 298v (from this blog)

Ain’t Much Pindar In Thar

Gottfried Hermann, Praelectiones in Pindarum:

In antiquity, Aristarchus and other grammarians of the Alexandrian school dealt with the writings of Pindar in such a way that they sometimes explained them, and sometimes corrected them according to grammatical and ethical principles which they had invented for themselves. We do not know how they did this, since many of their commentaries have been lost. But from this, the recension of these poems which we now have in our hands should not be considered to resemble what was written by Pindar, but rather, as it was interpolated by the corrections of the grammarians. Therefore, we must dig up the genuine parts, and toss out these inventions of the grammarians.

Image result for pindar

Pindari scripta in antiquitate et Aristarchus et alii scholae Alexandrinae grammatici tractarunt, ita ut tum ea explicarent, tum ad grammatices et ethices, quam sibi finxerant, praecepta corrigerent. Quod quomodo fecerint, non cognitum habemus, cum pleraque ex eorum commentariis interierint. Hinc quam nunc in manu habemus horum carminum recensionem, ea non putanda est ita esse a Pindaro instituta, sed Grammaticorum correctionibus interpolata. Genuina ergo eruenda sunt, eiicienda haec Grammaticorum figmenta.

Divine Truth and Mortal Belief

Parmenides, Fr. D4

“Greetings! No evil fate sent you to journey
By this road—for indeed it is far off from mortal paths—
But it was Law and Justice. You need to learn everything:
Both the immovable heart of persuasive Truth
And the beliefs of mortals which have no true faith.
But you should also learn these things too: how beliefs
Must be credible because they pervade all things.”

χαῖρ’, ἐπεὶ οὔτι σε μοῖρα κακὴ προὔπεμπε νέεσθαι
τήνδ’ ὁδόν (ἦ γὰρ ἀπ’ ἀνθρώπων ἐκτὸς πάτου ἐστίν),
ἀλλὰ Θέμις τε Δίκη τε. χρεὼ δέ σε πάντα πυθέσθαι
ἠμὲν Ἀληθείης εὐπειθέος ἀτρεμὲς ἦτορ
ἠδὲ βροτῶν δόξας, ταῖς οὐκ ἔνι πίστις ἀληθής.
ἀλλ’ ἔμπης καὶ ταῦτα μαθήσεαι, ὡς τὰ δοκοῦντα
χρῆν δοκίμως εἶναι διὰ παντὸς πάντα *περῶντα.

*περῶντα also appears as περ ὄντα. This variant reading might mean something like “even when they are completely true”.

This passage with its reference to the isolated path and the distinction between mortal belief and immortal truth reminds me of Hesiod:

Theogony 26-28

“Rustic shepherds, wretched reproaches, nothing but bellies,
We know how to say many lies similar to the truth
And we know how to speak the truth when we want to.”

“ποιμένες ἄγραυλοι, κάκ’ ἐλέγχεα, γαστέρες οἶον,
ἴδμεν ψεύδεα πολλὰ λέγειν ἐτύμοισιν ὁμοῖα,
ἴδμεν δ’ εὖτ’ ἐθέλωμεν ἀληθέα γηρύσασθαι.”

Odyssey 19.203

“He was like someone speaking many lies similar to the truth

ἴσκε ψεύδεα πολλὰ λέγων ἐτύμοισιν ὁμοῖα·

Elsewhere on this blog and in forthcoming work I explore this as the difference between coherence and correspondence in memory. Here it seems clearly to be on the surface a difference between mortal and divine ways of seeing. These domains do not cancel each other out….

Busto di Parmenide.jpg
Bust of Parmenides from Wikimedia Commons

Aeschylean Blast of Meaning

Virginia Woolf, On Not Knowing Greek:

If then in Sophocles the play is concentrated in the figures themselves, and in Euripides is to be retrieved from flashes of poetry and questions far flung and unanswered, Aeschylus makes these little dramas (the Agamemnon has 1663 lines; Lear about 2600) tremendous by stretching every phrase to the utmost, by sending them floating forth in metaphors, by bidding them rise up and stalk eyeless and majestic through the scene. To understand him it is not so necessary to understand Greek as to understand poetry. It is necessary to take that dangerous leap through the air without the support of words which Shakespeare also asks of us. For words, when opposed to such a blast of meaning, must give out, must be blown astray, and only by collecting in companies convey the meaning which each one separately is too weak to express. Connecting them in a rapid flight of the mind we know instantly and instinctively what they mean, but could not decant that meaning afresh into any other words. There is an ambiguity which is the mark of the highest poetry; we cannot know exactly what it means. Take this from the Agamemnon for instance–

      ὀμμάτων δ’ ἐν ἀχηνίαις

          ἔρρει πᾶσ’ ᾿Αφροδίτα.

The meaning is just on the far side of language. It is the meaning which in moments of astonishing excitement and stress we perceive in our minds without words; it is the meaning that Dostoevsky (hampered as he was by prose and as we are by translation) leads us to by some astonishing run up the scale of emotions and points at but cannot indicate; the meaning that Shakespeare succeeds in snaring.

Aeschylus thus will not give, as Sophocles gives, the very words that people might have spoken, only so arranged that they have in some mysterious way a general force, a symbolic power, nor like Euripides will he combine incongruities and thus enlarge his little space, as a small room is enlarged by mirrors in odd corners. By the bold and running use of metaphor he will amplify and give us, not the thing itself, but the reverberation and reflection which, taken into his mind, the thing has made; close enough to the original to illustrate it, remote enough to heighten, enlarge, and make splendid.

Image result for virginia woolf

The Greek Search for the Tragic

D.H. Lawrence, Germans and Latins:

It is already summer in Tuscany, the sun is hot, the earth is baked hard, and the soul has changed her rhythm. The nightingales sing all day and all night-not at all sadly, but brightly, vividly, impudently, with a trilling power of assertion quite disproportionate to the size of the shy bird. Why the Greeks should have heard the nightingale weeping or sobbing is more than I can understand. Anyhow, perhaps the Greeks were looking for the tragic, rather than the rhapsodic consummation to life. They were predisposed.

Image result for dh lawrence

My Heart’s Trouble: On the Death of Young Mothers

Pliny, Letters 4.21

To My Friend Velius Cerialis

“The death of the Helvidii sisters is so sad and bitter! Both from childbirth—each one died while giving birth to a daughter. I am super disturbed, and I do not grieve beyond reason: it seems so mournful to me because motherhood took these most honorable girls in the prime of their life. I feel awful as well for the fate of the infants who are born without mothers and for their noble husbands.

I mourn too on my own part. I have continued loving their father since he died as is proved in my actions and my publications since. Now only one of his three children remain, he alone supports and sustains a household which just a little time ago relied on many pillars.

My sorrow may grow quiet despite such trouble if fate will at least keep him safe, strong, and sound and an equal man to his father and his grandfather. I have more anxiety for his safety and habits now because he is alone. You know my heart’s trouble, you know my fear in love—it will not surprise you any less, then, that I fear more about one for whom I have more hope. Goodbye.”

C. Plinius Velio Ceriali Suo S.

Tristem et acerbum casum Helvidiarum sororum! Utraque a partu, utraque filiam enixa decessit. Adficior dolore, nec tamen supra modum doleo: ita mihi luctuosum videtur, quod puellas honestissimas in flore primo fecunditas abstulit. Angor infantium sorte, quae sunt parentibus statim et dum nascuntur orbatae, angor optimorum maritorum, angor etiam meo nomine. Nam patrem illarum defunctum quoque perseverantissime diligo, ut actione mea librisque testatum est; cui nunc unus ex tribus liberis superest, domumque pluribus adminiculis paulo ante fundatam desolatus fulcit ac sustinet. Magno tamen fomento dolor meus adquiescet, si hunc saltem fortem et incolumem, paremque illi patri illi avo fortuna servaverit. Cuius ego pro salute pro moribus, hoc sum magis anxius quod unicus factus est. Nosti in amore mollitiam animi mei, nosti metus; quo minus te mirari oportebit, quod plurimum timeam, de quo plurimum spero. Vale.

Marble Grave Stele, Greek 450 BCE (MET)