Skatokhasm: Another Word You Know You Need

How does one say “shithole” in Ancient Greek? As with other such esoteric considerations, this takes us into the depths of metaphor and meaning. Is a “shithole” a place whence shit emerges or one in which shit properly settles to age? To be more pointed, when we say “shithole”, do we mean the rectum (so is it a synonym for “asshole”) or do we mean a receptacle too primitive and unformed to be graced with the designation ‘toilet’?

I think when the leader of what was once the free world uses the term , he probably means the second meaning–that the countries designated so are “primitive”, bereft of proper sanitation, and, as such, both filled with excrement (in his excitable mind) and a worthy place for excrement to stay. Thanks to the magic of the conceptual metaphor, of course, the “shithole” can simultaneously indicate both origin and receptacle. One reason it is terribly racist is that the people who move from one to the other or inhabit them are, by extension, excrement.

Because I process trauma and horror through ancient Greek and lexicography, I need to ‘own’ this word by putting it in Greek. I think the stronger force of this metaphor is the location of discarded shit not the organ of excretion. Ancient Greek does not have a clear parallel (and believe me, gentle reader, I looked). I would love to hear some other suggestions. I put the call on Twitter.

The best suggestion, I think, is σκατοχάσμα (skatokhasma, see below). I like it because it has clear parallels (e.g. skatophage). Also, it sounds like “shit-gasm” which is what I think happens every time a certain chief executive speaks. Weaknesses: khasma is not very productive in ancient Greek compounds and is also rather ‘epic’ in scope. In English, “hole” is dimunitive a small. Shitholes are thus additionally awful because of their insignificance.

Honorable Mentions: τὸ σκατώρυγμον (skatorugmon). this has the sense of something hastily and poorly made by people. Also, κοπροβάραθρον is, as one correspondent declared, totally “metal” and, really epic. (Also, coprophilia is something the captain of our ship might cop to). The Lexicographer Zonaras treats all three of these nouns as synonyms (“Barathron: A ditch. A depth. The maw of the earth.” Βάραθρον. ὄρυγμα· βάθος· χάσμα γῆς). For me, barathron is mythical; orugmon is man-made, and khasma is more generic and ‘natural’. I prefer it, in sum, because of its huuugeness. It is really big. And the speaker mentioned above doesn’t do anything small.

Some Instructive Compounds

κοπρόνους: “manure-minded”
κοπράγωγεω: “to collect crap”
κόπρειος: “full of crap”
κοπρολογεῖν: “to gather crap”
κοπροφαγεῖν: “to eat crap”
κοπροστόμος: “foul-mouthed”
σκατοφάγος: “shit-eater”
κόπρανα: “excrements”
κοπραγωγός: “shit-bearer”
κοπρία: “dung-heap”
κοπρίζω: “to make dung”
κοπρικός: “full of it”
κοπροθέσιον: “a place where dung is put”. ‘Shit-bucket”
κοπροδοχεῖον: “cess pool”
κοπροποιός: “dung-making”
σκατοφάγος: “shit eater”
σκαταιβάτης: “shit-walker”
σκωραμὶς: “shit pot”; cf. Ar.Lys. 371: σκωραμὶς κωμῳδική: “comedic shitpot”

Image result for medieval manuscript toilet

From Beekes:


Eclipse and a Metaphor for Seeing the Real

Plato, Phaedo 99d-e

“So it seemed to me, he said, that after these travails, since I had come away with nothing while examining reality, that I should be careful not to suffer the very thing which people who gaze at the sun during an eclipse do. For some of them go blind, I think, unless they examine the sight in water or something like that. I mulled over this sort of thing and I feared that my soul might be similarly blinded should I try to grasp these matters with my eyes and each of my other senses. That’s why it seemed right to me to retreat into ideas and use them to examine the truth of reality.”

Ἔδοξε τοίνυν μοι, ἦ δ’ ὅς, μετὰ ταῦτα, ἐπειδὴ ἀπειρήκη τὰ ὄντα σκοπῶν, | δεῖν εὐλαβηθῆναι μὴ πάθοιμι ὅπερ οἱ τὸν ἥλιον ἐκλείποντα θεωροῦντες καὶ σκοπούμενοι πάσχουσιν· διαφθείρονται γάρ που ἔνιοι τὰ ὄμματα, ἐὰν μὴ ἐν ὕδατι ἤ τινι τοιούτῳ σκοπῶνται τὴν εἰκόνα αὐτοῦ. τοιοῦτόν τι καὶ ἐγὼ διενοήθην, καὶ ἔδεισα μὴ παντάπασι τὴν ψυχὴν τυφλωθείην βλέπων πρὸς τὰ πράγματα τοῖς ὄμμασι καὶ ἑκάστῃ τῶν αἰσθήσεων ἐπιχειρῶν ἅπτεσθαι αὐτῶν. ἔδοξε δή μοι χρῆναι εἰς τοὺς λόγους καταφυγόντα ἐν ἐκείνοις | σκοπεῖν τῶν ὄντων τὴν ἀλήθειαν.

Image result for Ancient Greek Astronomy Plato

While reading this the other day, I discovered I was not the only one:

“Magnetic Inspiration”: My Favorite Passage (and Metaphor) from Plato

Plato’s Ion 533d-534e

“I also see, Ion, and I am about to show you what I think this means. For talking well about Homer is not some skill within you—as I was just saying—but it is a divine power that moves you, just as in that stone which Euripides calls a ‘Magnet” but which most people call Herakleian. For this stone not only moves iron rings but it also imbues the rings with the same power so that they can do the same thing as the stone in turn—they move other rings and as a result there is a great chain of iron and rings connected to each other. But the power from that stone runs through them all. In this way, the Muse herself makes people inspired, and a linked chain of inspired people extend from her.

All the good poets of epic utter those beautiful poems not because of skill but because they are inspired and possessed—the good lyric poets are the same, just as the Korybantes do not dance when they are in their right minds, so too the lyric poets do not compose their fine lines when they are sensible, but when they embark upon their harmony and rhythm, they are in revelry and possessed. They are just like the bacchants who draw honey and milk from rivers when they are possessed, not when they are in their normal state of mind. The soul of the lyric poets does this too, which they themselves admit: for they claim, as I see it, that they bring to us their songs by gathering from the honey-flowing springs from certain gardens and glades of the Muses like bees—and they fly too!

And they speak the truth. For a poet is an empty thing—winged, and sacred and not capable of composing before it is inspired and out of mind, when thought is no longer inside. Until one has gained this state, every person is incapable of composing or giving oracles. Because they compose not by skill—when they say many fine things about their subjects—but by divine dispensation, as you do about Homer, each is only capable of composing well in the arena where the Musa compels—one person composes dithyramb, one encomia, another dance songs, another epic and another iambic poetry. But each is useless in the other genres.”

     ΣΩ. Καὶ ὁρῶ, ὦ ῎Ιων, καὶ ἔρχομαί γέ σοι ἀποφανούμενος ὅ μοι δοκεῖ τοῦτο εἶναι. ἔστι γὰρ τοῦτο τέχνη μὲν οὐκ ὂν παρὰ σοὶ περὶ ῾Ομήρου εὖ λέγειν, ὃ νυνδὴ ἔλεγον, θεία δὲ δύναμις ἥ σε κινεῖ, ὥσπερ ἐν τῇ λίθῳ ἣν Εὐριπίδης μὲν Μαγνῆτιν ὠνόμασεν, οἱ δὲ πολλοὶ ῾Ηρακλείαν. καὶ γὰρ αὕτη ἡ λίθος οὐ μόνον αὐτοὺς τοὺς δακτυλίους ἄγει τοὺς σιδηροῦς, ἀλλὰ καὶ δύναμιν ἐντίθησι τοῖς δακτυλίοις ὥστ’ αὖ δύνασθαι ταὐτὸν τοῦτο ποιεῖν ὅπερ ἡ λίθος, ἄλλους ἄγειν δακτυλίους, ὥστ’ ἐνίοτε ὁρμαθὸς μακρὸς πάνυ σιδηρίων καὶ δακτυλίων ἐξ ἀλλήλων ἤρτηται· πᾶσι δὲ τούτοις ἐξ ἐκείνης τῆς λίθου ἡ δύναμις ἀνήρτηται. οὕτω δὲ καὶ ἡ Μοῦσα ἐνθέους μὲν ποιεῖ αὐτή, διὰ δὲ τῶν ἐνθέων τούτων ἄλλων ἐνθουσιαζόντων ὁρμαθὸς ἐξαρτᾶται.

πάντες γὰρ οἵ  τε τῶν ἐπῶν ποιηταὶ οἱ ἀγαθοὶ οὐκ ἐκ τέχνης ἀλλ’ ἔνθεοι ὄντες καὶ κατεχόμενοι πάντα ταῦτα τὰ καλὰ λέγουσι ποιήματα, καὶ οἱ μελοποιοὶ οἱ ἀγαθοὶ ὡσαύτως, ὥσπερ οἱ κορυβαντιῶντες οὐκ ἔμφρονες ὄντες ὀρχοῦνται, οὕτω καὶ οἱ μελοποιοὶ οὐκ ἔμφρονες ὄντες τὰ καλὰ μέλη ταῦτα ποιοῦσιν, ἀλλ’ ἐπειδὰν ἐμβῶσιν εἰς τὴν ἁρμονίαν καὶ εἰς τὸν ῥυθμόν, βακχεύουσι καὶ κατεχόμενοι, ὥσπερ αἱ βάκχαι ἀρύονται ἐκ τῶν ποταμῶν μέλι καὶ γάλα κατεχόμεναι, ἔμφρονες δὲ οὖσαι οὔ, καὶ τῶν μελοποιῶν ἡ ψυχὴ τοῦτο ἐργάζεται, ὅπερ αὐτοὶ λέγουσι. λέγουσι γὰρ δήπουθεν πρὸς ἡμᾶς οἱ ποιηταὶ ὅτι ἀπὸ κρηνῶν μελιρρύτων ἐκ Μουσῶν κήπων τινῶν καὶ ναπῶν δρεπόμενοι τὰ μέλη ἡμῖν φέρουσιν ὥσπερ αἱ μέλιτται, καὶ αὐτοὶ οὕτω πετόμενοι· καὶ ἀληθῆ λέγουσι. κοῦφον γὰρ χρῆμα ποιητής ἐστιν καὶ πτηνὸν καὶ ἱερόν, καὶ οὐ πρότερον οἷός τε ποιεῖν πρὶν ἂν ἔνθεός τε γένηται καὶ ἔκφρων καὶ ὁ νοῦς μηκέτι ἐν αὐτῷ ἐνῇ· ἕως δ’ ἂν τουτὶ ἔχῃ τὸ κτῆμα, ἀδύνατος πᾶς ποιεῖν ἄνθρωπός ἐστιν καὶ χρησμῳδεῖν. ἅτε οὖν οὐ τέχνῃ ποιοῦντες καὶ πολλὰ λέγοντες καὶ καλὰ περὶ τῶν πραγμάτων, ὥσπερ σὺ περὶ ῾Ομήρου, ἀλλὰ θείᾳ μοίρᾳ, τοῦτο μόνον οἷός τε ἕκαστος ποιεῖν καλῶς ἐφ’ ὃ ἡ Μοῦσα αὐτὸν ὥρμησεν, ὁ μὲν διθυράμβους, ὁ δὲ ἐγκώμια, ὁ δὲ ὑπορχήματα, ὁ δ’ ἔπη, ὁ δ’ ἰάμβους· τὰ δ’ ἄλλα φαῦλος αὐτῶν ἕκαστός ἐστιν.


“Do you understand that the audience is the last of the rings which I was describing as transmitting through one another the power from the Herakleian stone and that you are the middle as the rhapsode and interpreter—that the poet himself is the first ring? The god moves the soul of all of these people wherever he wants, stringing the power from one into another.”

οἶσθα οὖν ὅτι οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ θεατὴς τῶν δακτυλίων ὁ ἔσχατος, ὧν ἐγὼ ἔλεγον ὑπὸ τῆς Ἡρακλειώτιδος λίθου ἀπ᾽ ἀλλήλων τὴν δύναμιν λαμβάνειν; ὁ δὲ μέσος σὺ ὁ ῥαψῳδὸς καὶ ὑποκριτής, ὁ δὲ πρῶτος αὐτὸς ὁ ποιητής ὁ δὲ θεὸς διὰ πάντων τούτων ἕλκει τὴν ψυχὴν ὅποι ἂν βούληται τῶν ἀνθρώπων, ἀνακρεμαννὺς ἐξ ἀλλήλων τὴν δύναμιν.

Fresco of women dancing in a line

Fresco, Museo Nationale, Naples. c. 400 BCE

Choosing a Captain on the Ship of Fools

Plato, Republic 6 488a7-89a2

[This was inspired by the “Ship of Fools” post at LitKicks]

Consider this how this could turn out on many ships or even just one: there is a captain of some size and strength beyond the rest of the men in the ship, but he is deaf and similarly limited at seeing, and he knows as much about sailing as these qualities might imply. So, the sailors are struggling with one another about steering the ship, because each one believes that he should be in charge, even though he has learned nothing of the craft nor can indicate who his teacher was nor when he had the time to learn. Some of them are even saying that it is not teachable, and that they are ready to cut down the man who says it can be taught.

They are always hanging all over the captain asking him and making a big deal of the fact that he should entrust the rudder to them. There are times when some of them do not persuade him, and some of them kill others or kick them off the ship, and once they have overcome the noble captain through a mandrake, or drugs, or something else and run the ship, using up its contents drinking, and partying, and sailing just as such sort of men might. In addition to this, they praise as a fit sailor, and call a captain and knowledgeable at shipcraft the man who is cunning at convincing or forcing the captain that they should be in charge. And they rebuke as useless anyone who is not like this.

Such men are unaware what a true helmsman is like, that he must be concerned about the time of year, the seasons, the sky, the stars, the wind and everything that is appropriate to the art, if he is going to be a leader of a ship in reality, how he might steer the ship even if some desire it or not, when they believe that it is not possible to obtain art or practice about how to do this, something like an art of ship-steering. When these types of conflicts are occurring on a ship, don’t you think the one who is a true helmsman would be called a star-gazer, a blabber, or useless to them by the sailors in the ships organized in this way?


νόησον γὰρ τοιουτονὶ γενόμενον εἴτε πολλῶν νεῶν πέρι εἴτε μιᾶς· ναύκληρον μεγέθει μὲν καὶ ῥώμῃ ὑπὲρ τοὺς ἐν τῇ νηὶ πάντας, ὑπόκωφον δὲ καὶ ὁρῶντα ὡσαύτως βραχύ τι καὶ γιγνώσκοντα περὶ ναυτικῶν ἕτερα τοιαῦτα, τοὺς δὲ ναύτας στασιάζοντας πρὸς ἀλλήλους περὶ τῆς κυβερνήσεως, ἕκαστον οἰόμενον δεῖν κυβερνᾶν, μήτε μαθόντα πώποτε τὴν τέχνην μέτε ἔχοντα ἀποδεῖξαι διδάσκαλον ἑαυτοῦ μηδὲ χρόνον ἐν ᾧ ἐμάνθανεν, πρὸς δὲ τούτοις φάσκοντας μηδὲ διδακτὸν εἶναι, ἀλλὰ καὶ τὸν λέγοντα ὡς διδακτὸν ἑτοίμους κατατέμνειν, αὐτοὺς δὲ αὐτῷ ἀεὶ τῷ ναυκλήρῳ περικεχύσθαι δεομένους καὶ πάντα ποιοῦντας ὅπως ἂν σφίσι τὸ πηδάλιον ἐπιτρέψῃ, ἐνίοτε δ’ ἂν μὴ πείθωσιν ἀλλὰ ἄλλοι μᾶλλον, τοὺς μὲν ἄλλους ἢ ἀποκτεινύντας ἢ ἐκβάλλοντας ἐκ τῆς νεώς, τὸν δὲ γενναῖον ναύκληρον μανδραγόρᾳ ἢ μέθῃ ἤ τινι ἄλλῳ συμποδίσαντας τῆς νεὼς ἄρχειν χρωμένους τοῖς ἐνοῦσι, καὶ πίνοντάς τε καὶ εὐωχουμένους πλεῖν ὡς τὸ εἰκὸς τοὺς τοιούτους, πρὸς δὲ τούτοις ἐπαινοῦντας ναυτικὸν μὲν καλοῦντας καὶ κυβερνητικὸν καὶ ἐπιστάμενον τὰ κατὰ ναῦν, ὃς ἂν συλλαμβάνειν δεινὸς ᾖ ὅπως ἄρξουσιν ἢ πείθοντες ἢ βιαζόμενοι τὸν ναύκληρον, τὸν δὲ μὴ τοιοῦτον ψέγοντας ὡς ἄχρηστον, τοῦ δὲ ἀληθινοῦ κυβερνήτου πέρι μηδ’ ἐπαΐοντες, ὅτι ἀνάγκη αὐτῷ τὴν ἐπιμέλειαν ποιεῖσθαι ἐνιαυτοῦ καὶ ὡρῶν καὶ οὐρανοῦ καὶ ἄστρων καὶ πνευμάτων καὶ πάντων τῶν τῇ τέχνῃ προσηκόντων, εἰ μέλλει τῷ ὄντι νεὼς ἀρχικὸς ἔσεσθαι, ὅπως δὲ κυβερνήσει ἐάντε τινες βούλωνται ἐάντε μή, μήτε τέχνην τούτου μήτε μελέτην οἰόμενοι δυνατὸν εἶναι λαβεῖν ἅμα καὶ τὴν κυβερνητικήν. τοιούτων δὴ περὶ τὰς ναῦς γιγνομένων τὸν ὡς ἀληθῶς κυβερνητικὸν οὐχ ἡγῇ ἂν τῷ ὄντι μετεωροσκόπον τε καὶ ἀδολέσχην καὶ ἄχρηστόν σφισι καλεῖσθαι ὑπὸ τῶν ἐν ταῖς οὕτω κατεσκευασμέναις ναυσὶ πλωτήρων;

Get Philosophical About Valentine’s Day: Love Keeps the World Together

Empedocles, fr. 17.23-33


“Come, listen to my stories: for learning will certainly improve your thoughts.
As I said before when I declared the outline of my speeches,
I will speak a two-fold tale. Once, first, the one alone grew
Out of many and then in turn it grew apart into many from one.
Fire, and Water, and Earth and the invincible peak of Air,
Ruinous strife as well, separate from these, equal to every one,
And Love was among them, equal as well in length and breadth.
Keep Love central in your mind, don’t sit with eyes in a stupor.
She is known to be innate to mortal bodies,
She causes them to think of love and complete acts of peace,
Whether we call her Happiness or Aphrodite as a nickname….”

ἀλλ’ ἄγε μύθων κλῦθι· μάθη γάρ τοι φρένας αὔξει·
ὡς γὰρ καὶ πρὶν ἔειπα πιφαύσκων πείρατα μύθων,
δίπλ’ ἐρέω· τοτὲ μὲν γὰρ ἓν ηὐξήθη μόνον εἶναι
ἐκ πλεόνων, τοτὲ δ’ αὖ διέφυ πλέον’ ἐξ ἑνὸς εἶναι,
πῦρ καὶ ὕδωρ καὶ γαῖα καὶ ἠέρος ἄπλετον ὕψος,
Νεῖκός τ’ οὐλόμενον δίχα τῶν, ἀτάλαντον ἁπάντηι,
καὶ Φιλότης ἐν τοῖσιν, ἴση μῆκός τε πλάτος τε·
τὴν σὺ νόωι δέρκευ, μηδ’ ὄμμασιν ἧσο τεθηπώς·
ἥτις καὶ θνητοῖσι νομίζεται ἔμφυτος ἄρθροις,
τῆι τε φίλα φρονέουσι καὶ ἄρθμια ἔργα τελοῦσι,
Γηθοσύνην καλέοντες ἐπώνυμον ἠδ’ ᾿Αφροδίτην·

Homer, Iliad 7.81-91: Both Victor and Vanquished win Glory (A Consolation before the Superbowl)

“If I kill him and Apollo grants me that moment of victory,
I’ll gather up his arms and take them to sacred Ilion
where I will dedicate them in the temple of far-shooting Apollo.
Then I will return his corpse to the well-benched ships
so that the fine-haired Achaians may bury him
and heap up a burial mound on the wide Hellespont.
Then someday one of the later-born men may say
as he sails by in a many-locked ship on the wine-faced sea:
‘This is the gravemarker of a man who died long ago,
a man glorious Hector killed when he was at his best.’
So someone someday will say: and my glory will never perish.”

εἰ δέ κ’ ἐγὼ τὸν ἕλω, δώῃ δέ μοι εὖχος ᾿Απόλλων,
τεύχεα σύλησας οἴσω προτὶ ῎Ιλιον ἱρήν,
καὶ κρεμόω προτὶ νηὸν ᾿Απόλλωνος ἑκάτοιο,
τὸν δὲ νέκυν ἐπὶ νῆας ἐϋσσέλμους ἀποδώσω,
ὄφρά ἑ ταρχύσωσι κάρη κομόωντες ᾿Αχαιοί,
σῆμά τέ οἱ χεύωσιν ἐπὶ πλατεῖ ῾Ελλησπόντῳ.
καί ποτέ τις εἴπῃσι καὶ ὀψιγόνων ἀνθρώπων
νηῒ πολυκλήϊδι πλέων ἐπὶ οἴνοπα πόντον•
ἀνδρὸς μὲν τόδε σῆμα πάλαι κατατεθνηῶτος,
ὅν ποτ’ ἀριστεύοντα κατέκτανε φαίδιμος ῞Εκτωρ.
ὥς ποτέ τις ἐρέει• τὸ δ’ ἐμὸν κλέος οὔ ποτ’ ὀλεῖται.

Too often we use war metaphors to talk about sports—the reasons are simple, most of us act as spectators in both and sports are quite obviously ritualized substitutes as honor competitions. But the stakes are far from the same. At some level, the implied equivalence is a great insult to those who do risk their lives and all of the non-combatants who suffer.

Of course, I offer this as a prelude to the fact that I do irrationally care about the outcome of tonight’s Superbowl. While it might be of little solace to the players (and even less than the fans) that victor and vanquished are united in the story that comes after (and during) the event, Hektor offered some comfort in the speech above. For whatever its worth, it was the comfort that he probably needed most himself.

And don’t hate me: as a New Englander (in exile) it is my sacred duty to root for the Patriots.

Serendipitous Saturday: Horace and Homer on Strings

While browsing through some of our earlier posts, two passages jumped out at me:

Horace, Ars Poetica 347

“The string does not always return the sound that the hand and mind desire”.

neque chorda sonum reddit quem volt manus et mens.



This would normally make me think of one of the greatest Homeric similes, and that simile was posted on the next day!


Homer, Odyssey 21.407-409


Just as a man who knows both lyre and song

easily stretches a string on a new peg

as he attaches the twisted sheep-gut to both sides

just so, without haste, Odysseus strung the great bow


ὡς ὅτ’ ἀνὴρ φόρμιγγος ἐπιστάμενος καὶ ἀοιδῆς

ῥηϊδίως ἐτάνυσσε νέῳ περὶ κόλλοπι χορδήν,

ἅψας ἀμφοτέρωθεν ἐϋστρεφὲς ἔντερον οἰός,

ὣς ἄρ’ ἄτερ σπουδῆς τάνυσεν μέγα τόξον ᾿Οδυσσεύς.


A great passage that combines two strains of the Odyssey, the hero as killer and the hero as singer, that have already overlapped at so many turns right before the killer supersedes all else.

Obviously, the Horatian passage made me think of the Homeric one.  But was that Horace’s inspiration?  Perhaps more scholarly minds than mine (or hands close to commentaries!) will have an answer…

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