Σκύβαλον in agricultural contexts

This piece picks up from Obscenity in Paul? The Question of σκύβαλον, examining how the word σκύβαλον is used in agricultural contexts. Philo, particular, is rich in such examples and makes for fruitful discussion. I’m using the digital edition of Philo, with the Loeb Greek text in Logos Bible Software. The translations are my own and not intended to be literal.

Philo, On the Virtues 145

  • μετὰ δὲ τὴν τελείωσιν πάλιν βοῦς ἐστι πρὸς ἑτέραν ὑπηρεσίαν ἀναγκαῖος, κάθαρσιν δραγμάτων καὶ διάκρισιν σκυβάλων ἀπὸ τοῦ γνησίου καὶ χρησίμου
    After the grain ripens, again the ox is necessary for additional work: the clearing out of the sheaves (grain stocks ) and the separating / distinguishing / sifting the σκυβάλων from the genuine (valuable?) and useful (Philo, On the Virtues 145).

Here it is essential to understand the context of the larger paragraph. This is Philo’s commentary on Deut 25:4, the Mosaic Law that requires oxen to be unmuzzled while threshing. His description of the ox and its behavior are tied to that law.  An ox has been allowed to work without a muzzle over its mouth, thus freely allowing it to eat while threshing out the grain from the husks. Philo considers this to be a great act of kindness to the animal, proving the superior benevolence of Jewish Law.

The process of treading involves two oxen yoked together. As they walk over the grain, either back and forth or around a pivot, pulling a threshing sledge to separate the grains from the husks and whatever sheaves and stalks might be left. BDAG’s entry for σκύβαλον (discussed in the previous post) implies that Danker took σκύβαλον to refer to the refuse of the husks, chaff, and remaining sheaves. This is a plausible situation, but by itself cannot explain Philo’s word choice here. Had that been the basic sense, there are more accurate words for it.  The noun κόμμα, ‘stamp’, has a secondary sense that refers explicitly to the remains of husk & chaff from threshing. Similarly, πάτημα ‘trodden refuse’ would have been an ideal choice as well for distinguishing the genuine and useful from the remaining waste. But anyone who has spent any kind of a time on a farm knows that an animal that it is eating is an animal that also defecates. The threshing of grain from a large field could take days. If the oxen are unmuzzled and eating as they work, their droppings end up on the threshing floor right along the grain. Then when threshing sledge is pulled over the dung and the grain together, grain and ox dung are mixed and pressed together. σκύβαλον is a logical word choice in this situation to refer to what needs to be separated out.

To the extent that σκύβαλον does refer to more than just dung/excrement, examples like this one are valuable for motivating the metaphoric extension to other forms of refuse/waste, since the chaff and husks of the grain are equally mixed in with the dung as the grain is, but they also do not fall into the category of τοῦ γνησίου καὶ χρησίμου ‘genuine and useful’.

Finally, observe that Philo’s discussion is quite pedestrian. Like the medical examples, this is not remotely obscene. Animal waste, excrement, dung, manure, σκύβαλον is a normal thing to encounter in agrarian society, very much unlike today where we have successfully separated ourselves from where our food actually comes from.

Philo, On Dreams 2.22

  • τὸ γὰρ δύνασθαι διακρίνειν σκυβάλων ἀναγκαῖα καὶ τρόφιμα μὴ τροφίμων καὶ νόθων γνήσια καὶ ἀνωφελοῦς ῥίζης καρπὸν ὠφελιμώτατον, μὴ ἐν οἷς ἡ γῆ βλαστάνει μᾶλλον ἢ διάνοια φύει, τελειοτάτης ἀρετῆς ἐστιν.
    For the power to distinguish necessities of life from refuse, and the edible from the inedible, and genuine from spurious, and a highly profitable fruitage from a root that is devoid of profit, in things yielded by the understanding, not in those which the soil puts forth, is a mark of consummate excellence (Philo, On Dreams 2.22).

Discussing Joseph relative to his brothers and interpreting dreams in order to illuminate his character (2.17). At 2.21, Philo notes that Josephus describes his family tying up sheaves rather than reaping them, that the former is unskilled labor and the latter is the work of experienced farmers, from there he lays out several contrasts between what an experienced farmer can distinguish compared the unskilled laborer:

  1. Necessities (ἀναγκαῖα) from σκύβαλον
  2. That which is edible (τρόφιμα) vs what is not (μὴ τροφίμων)
  3. What is genuine (γνήσια) vs. what is fake (νόθων)
  4. Valuable fruit (καρπὸν ὠφελιμώτατον) vs. useless roots (ἀνωφελοῦς ῥίζης)

This example is perhaps the best so far of a metaphoric extension of σκύβαλον to refer to things other than excrement. Here it fits well as an extension Philo, Virtue 145. But also note the binaries presented here: the center two are presented as having no overlap. They are extreme opposites: edible vs. not edible and genuine vs. fake. Each represents a contrast predicated on the judgments of the culture: we do not eat X, but we do eat Y. The pair γνήσιος and νόθος normally refer to social legitimacy, whether someone is born in wedlock (γνήσιος) or out of wedlock (νόθος). Here, in the farming context the contrast could be interpreted as involving entities that come from the same source, but contrast in value (e.g. chaff vs. grain, or as in contrast #4, root vs. fruit).

The other pairs present opposites grounded in physical experiences in the world itself and the two more abstract contrasts (#2 & #3) help guide our interpretation of the other two (#1) and (#4). For each pair, we expect one of them to be fake or spurious and the other to be legitimate or genuine. Since our interest is in the meaning of σκύβαλον, primarily, we will examine contrast (1) last and contrast (4) next.

The fourth pair contrasts valuable fruit that comes from the top of the plant with useless roots sit underground at the bottom. He has not only presented contrast of usefulness, but grounded that contrast in physical distance (of course, Philo is certainly not saying all roots are useless, but making a generalization based on the categories he wants to contrast).

That leaves us with the first contrast, the one with the relevant term σκύβαλον. Here the contrast is between necessities of life (in the agricultural context: food) from its extreme opposite: σκύβαλον. It’s possible that since the larger context involves Philo discussing the skilled knowledge of the farmer, he might again have the experience of the threshing floor in mind. But given the structure of the other pairs, he might also be making a contrast comparable to the fruit/roots ones. In that case, the necessities (ἀναγκαῖος) are what goes in for nourishment (cf. contrast #2) and what comes out that is wholly devoid of nutrition. This interpretation assumes Philo is making additional physical contrasts between the two concepts in the same way as fruit vs. root contrast does with both space and usefulness.

Philo, Providence II 62

  • ἐν γὰρ μυχοῖς σεσώρευται φορυτός, καὶ σκυβάλων πλῆθος, οἷς εἰσδύεσθαι φιλεῖ, δίχα τοῦ καὶ τὴν κνίσαν ὁλκὸν ἔχειν δύναμιν.
    For in nooks and corners, rubbish accumulates–and a great amount of σκυβάλων—in which they love to creep and apart from that, the smell has a powerful attraction for them (Philo, Providence II 62).

Here again, we have a contrast between one word for waste/rubbish and σκύβαλον. LSJ glosses φορυτός as ‘whatever the wind carries along: hence, rubbish’. This involves stuff the collects in a farmyard or carpenter’s shop, so saw dust falls into the category, but also perhaps hay, chips, shaving, pebbles, and animal hair. Aristotle uses the word to refer to the materials of a bird’s nest, which also fits. Aristophanes’ play Acharnians presents an occurrence of φορυτός being used for packing breakable earthenware. That σκύβαλον is introduced with καί suggests that it is an additional thing that also collects in these places distinct from φορυτός. That combined with the reference to the smells implies something like manure or dung. The sort of shavings, features, dust, straw, and so forth that φορυτός refers to certainly does not explain the smell. The existence of σκύβαλον in doors, again, makes sense within an agrarian society, where farm animals live in closer proximity to humans than is expected in most of the contemporary western world.

Philo, Sacrifices 139

  • νόμος γὰρ ὁλοκαυτωμάτων οὗτος, μηδὲν ἔξω τροφῆς σκυβάλων καὶ δέρματος, ἃ σωματικῆς ἀσθενείας δείγματα, οὐχὶ κακίας, ἐστίν, ὑπολείπεσθαι τῷ γενητῷ, τὰ δʼ ἄλλα ὅσα ψυχὴν ὁλόκληρον κατὰ πάντα τὰ μέρη παρέχεται ὁλοκαυτοῦν θεῷ.
    For this is the law of burnt-offerings, that nothing save the excrement and hide which are the tokens of bodily weakness, not of wickedness, should be left to created being, but the rest, which show a soul wholly complete in all its parts, should be given in their entirety as a burnt-offering to God (Philo, Sacrifices 139).

The process of cutting up an animal and separating out its pieces for sacrifice necessarily involves dealing with animal feces and perhaps partially digested food still in the digestive tract and bowels. In the context of the profane and the holy, it is natural that such excrement would not be a desirable part of a burnt offering. That the hide would also be separated from the offering is striking and suggests a possible social parallel with cultural attitudes toward hair, which we will see in detail when we examine Plutarch use of σκύβαλον in De Iside et Osiride.

But again, none of these examples of σκύβαλον suggest a word that is taboo, obscene or profane. The referent of the word is certainly viewed by the culture as profane (vs. sacred) and certainly unclean. It seems dubious that it can merely mean indistinct refuse without reference to dung or excrement, but these examples in Philo do at least suggest that σκύβαλον include types of waste that become easily associated and mixed up with dung and excrement in the normal day to day experiences of life, especially in threshing floor contexts. Here is one final example from Philo, where the threshing floor comes into play once more and the waste, of chaff, stalk and husk find parallel with the excrement/dung/manure.

Philo, Sacrifices 109

  • ἀπαρχαὶ δέ εἰσιν ἅγιαι κινήσεις αἱ κατʼ ἀρετὴν ἑκατέρου, διὸ καὶ ἅλῳ παραβέβληται· καθάπερ οὖν ἐν ταῖς ἅλωσι πυροὶ καὶ κριθαὶ καὶ ὅσα τοιαῦτα καθʼ ἑαυτὰ χωρίζεται, ἀθέρες δὲ καὶ ἄχυρα καὶ εἴ τις ἄλλος φορυτὸς ἑτέρωσε σκίδναται, οὕτως καὶ παρʼ ἡμῖν τὰ μέν ἐστιν ἄριστα καὶ ὠφέλιμα καὶ τὰς ἀληθεῖς τροφὰς παρέχοντα, διʼ ὧν ὁ ὀρθὸς ἀποτελεῖται βίος, ἅπερ ἀναθετέον θεῷ, τὰ δὲ ἄλλα ὅσα μὴ θεῖα ὑπολειπτέον ὥσπερ σκύβαλα γένει τῷ θνητῷ.
    Now the first fruits are the sacred impulses, each of which accord with virtue. As such, there is also a comparison to the threshing floor. Just as on the threshing floor, the wheat and barley and other such grain are separated out in kind, and then the chaff, husk, and field dust (φορυτός) are pushed to the other side, so also in us there those things that are good and useful that provide real nourishment, through which right living can be achieved (ὁ ὀρθὸς ἀποτελεῖται βίος). It is these things that are attributable to God and the rest that remains has nothing of the divine, as such it is the excrement to the mortal race (Philo, Sacrifices 109).

While we are still, technically, in the domain of agrarian usage, Philo is nevertheless moving into the metaphorical domain. Again, we have a threshing floor context, but note that Philo does not use σκύβαλα to refer to the chaff and stalks, there he uses φορυτός to refer to the superordinate category to which chaff and stalks belong. The waste of the grains is φορυτός, but the waste of mortal humanity (=γένει τῷ θνητῷ) is σκύβαλα.

Lexicographical Comment

The words regularly used in association with σκύβαλον in these examples share semantics parallels and relationship, but do not quite overlap. They all participate in the waste/rubbish/dirt category that σκύβαλον certainly exists in, but in their associations, Philo consistently introduces σκύβαλον as an additional referent in some way.

And then just to reiterate it one more time: there is no evidence of obscenity or profanity here.