“I often yearn to take you at night, Thaleia,
And fill my heart with your warm lust-madness.
But now when you are naked next to me with sweet limbs,
I am spent, and my limb is worn with sleepy exhaustion.
Cowardly heart, what have you suffered? Rise up, don’t be weary!
Someday you will seek such excessive good luck again.”
We are happy to have new contributions from the Fabulous Dr. Amy Coker. She shares a certain scatalogical interest, but brings considerable expertise to the matter.
This latest word is not to do with sex, but rather with another bodily action which is often a source of taboo words, excretion. More specifically, this post is about words I have been affectionately characterising as denoting ‘solid waste’ (or ‘poo’, ‘faeces’, etc.). One of the words in ancient Greek for the noun ‘poo’ is κόπρος (ko-pross), the word which gives us English scientific words beginning with ‘copro-‘ such as ‘coprolite’ – fossilised faeces – coined in the early nineteenth century.
Despite the unpleasantness of the substance κόπρος indicates, the word itself is not really ‘taboo’ or offensive, and is found in a range of Classical works from Homer’s epics to medical works in the Hippocratic corpus: κόπρος is milder in tone than the English four-letter word, ‘sh*t’. What sparked this post is an example in our ancient texts of a word similar to κόπρος – κόπριον (ko-pree-on). In technical parlance, this word is the stem κοπρ- plus the diminutive suffix -ιον (-ee-on): this last part is a segment which makes a word meaning the same thing as the stem, or a smaller version of it, or indicates affection from the speaker to the object (a bit like English ‘toe’, diminutive ‘toe-sie’).
The example of κόπριον we are interested in comes from a papyrus letter written in Egypt in the late 2nd or 3rd century AD, known as P.Oxy. 1761. Greek was the dominant language of Egypt for around a thousand years from the conquest of Alexander the Greek to the Arab conquest in the mid 7th century AD, so that fact that this letter is written in Greek in Egypt is not unusual. This letter is in other respects too typical of those written in vast numbers by individuals about everyday matters; these people are otherwise lost to history, but their correspondence by chance survives. (See picture for an example of what a papyrus letter looks like).
It is lines 6-7 of P.Oxy. 1761 where the surprise lies: as Grenfell and Hunt put it in their edition in the early twentieth century, here ‘A very singular symptom of regret for an absent friend is specified’. Here is a full translation of the letter, as given by Montserrat’s Sex & Society in Graeco-Roman Egypt (1996, 8); the bold words are the ones which concerns us:
Callirhoë to her dear Sarapis, greetings. I say a prayer for you every day in the presence of the lord Sarapis. Since you have been away I go on the trail of your shit in my desire to see you. Greet Thermouthis and Helias and Ploution and Aphrodite and Nemesianus. Carabus and Harpocration greet you, and everyone at home. I pray for your health.
The Greek text which lies behind this ‘singular symptom of regret’ is: ἐπιζῃητοῦμέν σου τὰ κόπρια, literally, ‘I/we look for (or miss?) your κόπριον-s’ (κόπρια is the plural of κόπριον). There is no wandering about here, despite the impression the translation might give. A slightly more recent translation by Bagnall & Cribiore in their collection of women’s letters (2006, 392) renders these words as the striking ‘we are searching for your turds’.
Is Callirhoë really looking through the dunghill because she misses her friend? Even when we accept that ancient peoples did things differently, this seems a stretch. We could be tempted to think that this is an idiom peculiar to Egypt, perhaps stemming from a native expression, but there seems to be no obvious parallel (suggestions are welcome). I think rather the best explanation comes back to what κόπρος/κόπριον means.
Both these words are also used more broadly of ‘rubbish’, or things which can be taken away to be used as fertiliser: remember that most ancient waste was organic. κόπριον is found in this kind of sense in the Magical Papyri, an ancient collection of spells, where it is something picked up from the ground where a corpse has lain (PGM 4.1395-8, 4.1441-2). Dieter Betz translates this as ‘polluted dirt’, but the pollution comes only from the context of the spell.
I think here and in our letter we should rather take κόπρια as indicating ‘useless remains’ or ‘traces’, akin to English ‘crap’: note how ‘crap’ has just this double meaning of ‘excrement’ and ‘rubbish’ in contemporary UK English (e.g. ‘there is so much crap in my house’). The result is that Callirhoë is not looking for any particular bodily waste produced by her dear Sarapis, but rather for indications that she has been around: a rather loose translation of this sentiment might therefore be ‘I go through your crap wanting to find you there’.
Amy Coker has over the last decade held positions in Classics and Ancient History at the Universities of Manchester, Liverpool and Bristol in the UK. After undergraduate studies in Classics at Downing College, Cambridge, and an MA in Linguistics at the University of Manchester, she was awarded funding from the Arts & Humanities Research Council to support her doctoral work on gender variation in Ancient Greek (2007-2009, PhD Manchester 2010). She later secured a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship (2013-2016) for a project on Greek sexual and scatological vocabulary, and ancient offensive language. She was a Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Classical Studies, University of London (2017-2018), and is now an Honorary Research Fellow of the University of Bristol (2018-), and teacher of Classics at Cheltenham Ladies College (2018-).
She has published work in the fields of historical linguistics, pragmatics, and classics, and has pieces about to appear on the treatment of obscene language in the most well-known lexicon of Ancient Greek, Liddell and Scott, and on a filthy joke told by Cleopatra involving a ladle.
She is a keen supporter of outreach and public engagement, and has worked with the UK charity Classics for All running projects to bring Latin and Greek teaching to schools which have no tradition of teaching these subjects. She can be found on Twitter at @AECoker.
Content Warning: strong language, sexual content, prostitution, and castration threat
Greek Anthology 5.126 Philodemos
Mocking invective against a wasted lover still giving much to “girlfriends”
“The clever man gives a clever girl five talents for one round
And he shakes while fucking her, though, by god, she’s not even pretty.
I give Lusianissa twelve drachmas for twelve turns,
Both to fuck a better woman and do it openly.
Either I am completely senseless or what’s left to do
But chop of his balls with an ax.”
“I praise the dancer from Asia, the one who moves
From the tips of her fingernails with devious positions,
Not because she shows every passion or because she throws
Her delicate hands delicately this way and that,
But because she knows how to dance around a worn out stump
And doesn’t try to flee its aging wrinkles.
She tongues it, kneads it, throws her hands around it–
And if she throws her leg over me, she raises my staff back from hell.”
The following two passages are from the Mirabilia ofApollonius the Paradoxographer (usually dated to the 2nd Century BCE, making him one of the earliest extant paradoxographers).
This plant makes you bigger [=BNJ 81 F17]
“Phularkhos writes in the eighth book of his Histories that near the Arabian Gulf there is a spring of water from which if anyone ever anoints their feet what transpires miraculously is that their penis becomes enormously erect. For some it never contracts completely, while others are put back in shape with great suffering and medical attention.”
“Phularkhos in book 20 of the Histories says that there is a white root imported from India which when [people] cut it and smear it over their feet with water, those who are smeared with it experience forgetfulness of sex and become similar to eunuchs. For this reason still some apply it before they are fully adults and are not aroused for the rest of their life.”
“Phularkhos says that Sandrokottos, the king of the Indians, sent along with other gifts to Seleukos some drugs with erectile powers, the kind of which, when they are applied beneath feet of those who are going to have sex, give the urge like birds, while some people lose their ability [for sex].”
“Ponticus, do you think that it’s no big deal
That you never fuck but just use your left hand
As a whore, a friendly crew to serve your desire?
Believe me: it’s a crime and one large enough
That you can barely understand it with your mind.
Horatius, I guess, fucked once to make a trio
Mars did it once with blushing Ilia to make two.
The whole world would have collapsed if either jerked off
And entrusted foul delights to their own hands.
Just think, the nature of the universe says to you:
Ponticus, what you spend on your fingers is a person too.”
Pontice, quod numquam futuis, sed paelice laeva
uteris et Veneri servit amica manus,
hoc nihil esse putas? scelus est, mihi crede, sed ingens,
quantum vix animo concipis ipse tuo.
nempe semel futuit, generaret Horatius ut tres;
Mars semel, ut geminos Ilia casta daret.
omnia perdiderat, si masturbatus uterque
mandasset manibus gaudia foeda suis.
ipsam crede tibi naturam dicere rerum:
istud quod digitis, Pontice, perdis, homo est.
“Mercury’s form has the power to please.
And Apollo’s body sticks out especially.
Lyaeus in pictures has a shapely line,
And Cupid is still finest of the fine.
My body lacks a certain beauty, I confess
But, look, my dick’s a jewel beyond the rest.
Any girl should prefer it to the gods I named,
And if she doesn’t, then a greedy pussy’s to blame.”
Forma Mercurius potest placere,
forma conspiciendus est Apollo,
formosus quoque pingitur Lyaeus,
formosissimus omnium est Cupido.
me pulchra fateor carere forma,
verum mentula luculenta nostra est:
hanc mavult sibi quam deos priores,
si qua est non fatui puella cunni.