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

 

Shaking Us Down

Latin Trag. Adesp. = Ps-Cicero, Ad. Herenn. 2.26

“I cannot think…or figure out any reason why
I might impeach him. What would let you accuse someone
Who is honorable, if he is good? And if he is not honorable
What would let you impeach him if he thinks it is but a
Minor thing?”

Nequeo . . .
qua causa accusem hunc exputando evolvere.
Nam si veretur quid eum accuses qui est probus?
Sin inverecundum animi ingenium possidet,
quid autem accuses qui id parvi auditum
aestimet? . . .

Aristophanes fr 228 = Suda sigma 290

“Shaking-down”: Blackmail, this is a metaphor from people who shake trees: “I was shaking them down, I demanded money, I was threatening them and was extorting them again and again.”

σεῖσαι· τὸ συκοφαντῆσαι, ἀπὸ τῶν τὰ ἀκρόδρυα σειόντων· ἔσειον, ᾔτουν χρήματ᾿, ἠπείλουν, ἐσυκοφάντουν πάλιν

Mycenaean Goat and Tree Vase at the British Museum

Greek and Roman Words on Vomiting

Greek Puking

ἐξεμέω, ἐξερεύγομαι: “vomit”

κατεξεράω: “vomit upon”

κοπριήμετος: “shit-puking”

προεξεμέω: “to puke beforehand”

ἐμεσία: “pukey”; i.e., a disposition to vomit

ἔμεσμα: “puke”, i.e. “that which is vomited

ἐμετηρίζω: “to administer an emetic”

ἐμετικός: “something that causes vomiting; an emetic”

ἀκρητόχολος: “bilious vomiting”

δυσεμής: “Difficult to vomit”

εὐέμετος: “Vomiting easily”

χολημετέω: “to vomit bile”

Image result for Ancient greek vomit vase

Herodotus, 1.133

“They can’t puke or piss in front of another”

καί σφι οὐκ ἐμέσαι ἔξεστι, οὐκὶ οὐρῆσαι ἀντίον ἄλλου

Revelations, 3.16

“I’m going to puke you from my mouth.”

μέλλω σε ἐμέσαι ἐκ τοῦ στόματός μου

Cicero, For King Deiotauros 7.22

“When you said you wanted to puke after dinner, they began to lead you into the bathroom”

‘cum’ inquit ‘vomere post cenam te velle dixisses, in balneum te ducere coeperunt

Plautus, Rudens 27

“By the god, I wish too much that you’d puke up your lungs!”

Pulmoneum edepol nimis velim vomitum vomas.

From P. Chantraine, an etymology. Did someone choke on a digamma?

chantraine (2)

The Roman Side of Things

Vomax, “given to vomiting”

Vomer, “ploughshare”; “membrum virile

Vomica: “sore, boil”; “an evil”

Vomicosus: “full of sores or tumors”

Vomicus: “ulcerous”

Vomificus: “that which causes vomiting”

Vomifluus: “flowing with pus”

Vomitio: “a spewing”

Vomitor: “one who vomits”

Vomitorious: “that produces vomiting, emetic”

Vomitus: “a vomiting”

Vomo: “to puke”, cf. Greek ἐμέω, *ϝεμ-

Image result for Ancient Roman Vomiting

Some Phage Compounds to Get You in the Holiday Mood

Very soon we will be eating too much for like a month straight. This is the start of occasional posts for the duration on feasting, over-indulgence, and, of course, drinking.

Telegony, fr. 1

“He consumed the endless meat and sweet wine greedily”

ἤσθιεν ἁρπαλέως κρέα τ’ ἄσπετα καὶ μέθυ ἡδύ.

fish vase

Some phage compounds and their explanations.

Adêphagia: “Endless-eating”: This means insatiable. We also find the adjective adêphagos (“eating constantly”), polyphagos (“eating everything”) and gastrimargos (gourmand).
᾿Αδηφαγία: ἡ ἀπληστία. καὶ ᾿Αδηφάγος, ἀθρόως ἐσθίων, πολυφάγος, γαστρίμαργος. ᾿

Αἰγοφάγος· aigophagos, “goat-eater”. An epithet of Hera in Sparta

αὐτοφάγος: autophagos, “self-feeder” (not someone who eats himself)

βουφάγος: bouphagos, “cow-eater”

κοπροφάγος: koprophagos, “dung-eater”

Σκατοφάγος: skatophagos, “dung-eater”. For this, Hesychius comments “but skatophagos is especially mean” (᾿Αλλὰ σκατοφάγος ἐστι καὶ λίαν πικρός). Why? Skatos is the genitive of skôr (σκῶρ), which has a closer resonance with human excrement.

ὀψοφάγος: opsophagos, “delicacy eater”, i.e. foodie

λαθροφάγος: lathrophagos “secret-eater” (eating in secret)

θυμβροφάγος: thumbrofagos, “eating the herb savory”, a metaphor for having a bitter expression. Compare to δριμυφάγος “bitter-eating”, cf. the expression, “leaves a bad taste in the mouth”

ἰχθυοφάγος, ikhthuophagos, “fish-eater”. This is an insult, the Suda explains that Theôros was maligned as a “seducer, fish-eater, and rogue” (ὡς μοιχὸς καὶ ἰχθυοφάγος καὶ πονηρός). Fish-eating seems to be an indication of a dedication to luxury and excess.

Καπροφάγος: kaprophagos, “boar-eater”, an epithet of Artemis in Samos

καταφαγᾶς: kataphagas, “one who eats bent over”, i.e. birds and gourmands

κραδοφάγος: kradophagos, “twig-eater”, a derogatory epithet for a country-dweller

συκοφάγος: sukophagos, “fig eater,” a derogatory epithet for a country-dweller

ἰσχαδοφάγος: iskhadophagos, “fig-eater”, a derogatory epithet for a country-dweller

κριοφάγος: kriophagos, “fat-eater”, an epithet for a god receiving a sacrifice

Λωτοφάγος: lôtophagos, “lotus-eater”

μικροφάγος: mikrophagos, “small-eater”, someone who doesn’t eat much

παμφάγος: pamphagos, “all-eater”, someone who eats everything

ταυροφάγος: tauorophagos, “bull-eater”, an epithet of Dionysus

For the Solstice: Which Season is Sweetest?

Bion, fr. 2 (preserved in Stobaeus 1.8.39)

Kleodamos

Myrsôn, what do you find sweet in the spring,
The winter, fall, or summer? Which do you pray for the most?
Is it summer when everything we have worked for is done,
Or is fall sweeter, when hunger is light for men,
Or is it winter, bad for work, when because of the season
Many warm themselves delighting in laziness and relaxation—
Or, surely, is it noble spring which pleases you more?
Tell me what’s on your mind, since leisure has allowed us to chat.

Myrsos

It is not right for mortals to judge divine deeds—
For all these things are sacred and sweet. But for you, Kleodamos,
I will confess what seems sweeter to me than the rest.
I do not wish for the summer, since the sun cooks me then.
I do not wish for the Fall, since that season brings disease.
The Winter brings ruinous snow—and I have chilling fear.
I long for  Spring three times as much for the whole year,
When neither the cold nor the heat weigh upon me.
Everything is pregnant in the spring, everything grows sweet in springtime
When humans have nights and days as equal, nearly the same.”

ΚΛΕΟΔΑΜΟΣ
Εἴαρος, ὦ Μύρσων, ἢ χείματος ἢ φθινοπώρω
ἢ θέρεος τί τοι ἁδύ; τί δὲ πλέον εὔχεαι ἐλθεῖν;
ἦ θέρος, ἁνίκα πάντα τελείεται ὅσσα μογεῦμες,
ἢ γλυκερὸν φθινόπωρον, ὅκ’ ἀνδράσι λιμὸς ἐλαφρά,
ἢ καὶ χεῖμα δύσεργον—ἐπεὶ καὶ χείματι πολλοί
θαλπόμενοι θέλγονται ἀεργίᾳ τε καὶ ὄκνῳ—
ἤ τοι καλὸν ἔαρ πλέον εὔαδεν; εἰπὲ τί τοι φρήν
αἱρεῖται, λαλέειν γὰρ ἐπέτραπεν ἁ σχολὰ ἄμμιν.

ΜΥΡΣΩΝ
κρίνειν οὐκ ἐπέοικε θεήια ἔργα βροτοῖσι,
πάντα γὰρ ἱερὰ ταῦτα καὶ ἁδέα· σεῦ δὲ ἕκατι
ἐξερέω, Κλεόδαμε, τό μοι πέλεν ἅδιον ἄλλων.
οὐκ ἐθέλω θέρος ἦμεν, ἐπεὶ τόκα μ’ ἅλιος ὀπτῇ·
οὐκ ἐθέλω φθινόπωρον, ἐπεὶ νόσον ὥρια τίκτει.
οὖλον χεῖμα φέρει νιφετόν, κρυμὼς δὲ φοβεῦμαι.
εἶαρ ἐμοὶ τριπόθητον ὅλῳ λυκάβαντι παρείη,
ἁνίκα μήτε κρύος μήθ’ ἅλιος ἄμμε βαρύνει.
εἴαρι πάντα κύει, πάντ’ εἴαρος ἁδέα βλαστεῖ,
χἀ νὺξ ἀνθρώποισιν ἴσα καὶ ὁμοίιος ἀώς.

Season Words

Spring: ἔαρ, τὸ: from IE *ves-r, cf. vernal.

Summer: θέρος, τὸ: from a root meaning “warm, heat”

Winter: χεῖμα, τὸ (ancient word for winter)

Fall: φθινόπωρον, τό:  from φθιν (φθίω “decay, waste, dwindle”)+ ὀπώρα (“end of summer, harvest”)

Ecclesiastes, 3 Latin Vulgate

omnia tempus habent et suis spatiis transeunt universa sub caelo
tempus nascendi et tempus moriendi tempus plantandi
et tempus evellendi quod plantatum est

 

London, British Library, MS Sloane 2435, f. 23r.

“Like the Full Moon…” Some Greek Proverbs on Gratitude

thanksgiving

Arsenius, 6.38b

“If you are able to give thanks, don’t tarry, but give it—since you know that things are not everlasting.”

Δυνάμενος χαρίζεσθαι, μὴ βράδυνε, ἀλλὰ δίδου, ἐπιστάμενος μὴ εἶναι τὰ πράγματα μόνιμα.

Arsenius, 6.95c

“Humans have greater thanks for the unexpected”

᾿Εκ τῶν ἀέλπτων ἡ χάρις μείζων βροτοῖς

Arsenius 8.42p

“Just like food for the starving, well-timed thanks tunes and heals what the soul is missing.” – Heraclitus

 ῾Η εὔκαιρος χάρις λιμῷ καθάπερ τροφὴ ἁρμόττουσα τὴν τῆς ψυχῆς ἔνδειαν ἰᾶται ῾Ηρακλείτου.

Zenobius, 36.3

“The Graces are naked: [a proverb] indicating that it is right to give unsparingly and in the open.”

Αἱ Χάριτες γυμναί: ἤτοι ὅτι δεῖ ἀφειδῶς καὶ φανερῶς χαρίζεσθαι·

Arsenius 8.77b

“Thanks for the wise never dies”

῾Η χάρις πρὸς εὐγνώμονας οὐδέποτε θνήσκει.

Aresnius 8.77d

“Thanks looks as beautiful as the moon when it is full”

῾Η χάρις ὥσπερ ἡ σελήνη, ὅταν τελεία γένηται, τότε καλὴ φαίνεται.

Aresnius 8.77d

‘Thanks, like nothing else in life, ages quickest among most people”

῾Η χάρις, ὡς οὐδὲν ἄλλο ἐν βίῳ, παρὰ τοῖς πολλοῖς τάχιστα γηράσκει.

Arsenius 18.59f 

“Don’t hesitate to die for the very things for which you want to live.”

῟Ων ἕνεκα ζῆν ἐθέλεις, τούτων χάριν καὶ ἀποθανεῖν μὴ κατόκνει.

Michaelos Apostolios, 5.18

“A field with a clod of dirt”: [a proverb applied to those] who show thanks for great things with small gestures.”

     Βώλοις ἄρουραν: ἐπὶ τῶν τοῖς μικροῖς χαριζομένων τοὺς μεγάλους.

Michaelos Apostolios, 13.37

“It is right neither to seek friendship from a corpse nor thanks from the greedy”

Οὔτε παρὰ νεκροῦ ὁμιλίαν, οὔτε παρὰ φιλαργύρου δεῖ χάριν ἐπιζητεῖν.

Image result for Ancient Greek dedicatory offerings

More on proverbs, go here.

Greek kharis (χάρις, “thanks”) is related to the verb khairô (χαίρω), “to feel joy”

From Beekes 2010:

Kharis 1

Kharis 2

Tawdry Tuesday: Further Scatological Studies

Go here for more words for excrement. And here for “shitting the bed.”

Aristophanes, Wealth 625-628

“If I flash lightning, the rich dudes
And the important fools
All pray and shit in their pants.”

κἂν ἀστράψω, ποππύζουσιν
κἀγκεχόδασίν μ᾿ οἱ πλουτοῦντες
καὶ πάνυ σεμνοί.

Damox, fr. 2. 15-16

“Rub him down with shit / and expel him from school”
μινθώσας ἄφες / ὡς ἐκ διατριβῆς

Arsenius, 6.70c

“You have fallen into Augeus’ dung: this means “you are immersed in filth”

Εἰς τὴν Αὐγέου κόπρον ἐμπέπτωκας: ἤγουν ἐβορβορώθης.

Eubulus. Fr. 52 [from Athenaeus]

“After that, I left Thebes, where they dine all night
And all day long and each person has a toilet
Next to his door—and there’s nothing better
For a person who’s full. Someone who is walking far
And needs to shit after eating a lot,
He’s hilarious to see as he bites down on his lips.”
μετὰ ταῦτα Θήβας ἦλθον, οὗ τὴν νύχθ᾿ ὅλην

τήν θ᾿ ἡμέραν δειπνοῦσι καὶ κοπρῶν᾿ ἔχει
ἐπὶ ταῖς θύραις ἕκαστος, οὗ πλήρει βροτῷ
οὐκ ἔστι μεῖζον ἀγαθόν· ὡς χεζητιῶν
μακρὰν βαδίζων, πολλὰ δ᾿ † ἐσθίων † ἀνήρ,
δάκνων τὰ χείλη παγγέλοιός ἐστ᾿ ἰδεῖν.

From Henderson’s maculate muse

Henderson xezein