Obscenity in Paul? The metaphorical usages

Metaphorical usage of σκύβαλον is far less common in our available corpus than those that have a physical referent. This handful of examples, however, are interesting in as much as they provide an insightful look into where lexical change might be taking place, especially since σκύβαλον appears and disappears from documented Greek all with a few centuries. Analogy and metaphor are the two of the most fundamental and central of mechanisms for language change (Antilla 2003; Sweetser 1991).

Some of these examples are outside digital corpora. P.Fayum 119 is not a searchable text for me, but we know there’s an example of σκύβαλον in it because Moulton & Milligan (1930) cite this papyri in their entry for the word. Thankfully, also, P.Fayum 119 is available online, both at papyri.info (here) and also in Grenfell et al’s (1900) Fayûm towns and their papyri available on Archive.org. P.Fay 119 is a letter from Gemellus to his son Sabinus, dated 100 CE. Here are lines 3-7:

  • Αὐνπης ὡ ὀνηλάτης χόρτου δύσμην σαπρὰν εγ (δραχμῶν) ιβ καὶ μικρὰν δύσμην [spelling: δέσμην] καὶ χόρτον σαπρὸν καὶ ὅλον λελυμένον ὡς σκύβαλον.
    Aune the donkey-driver brought me a rotten bundle of hay for 12 drachmae, a tiny bundle at that, and rotten hay, and utterly decomposed! No better than σκύβαλον.

Here, the father Gemellus uses σκύβαλον in a comparison. The three καί’s linking the four phrases are interesting . Normally, the expectation would be four separate things, but it is more likely these are all descriptors for the same one referent. Gemellus paid 12 drachmae for a bundle of hay and each NP that follows builds up complaint upon complaint about that bundle: it’s tiny, it’s rotten, it’s entirely decayed (this is a very striking use of λύω that would be worth adding to our discussion of λύω, previously: The Divergent Senses of λύω). Finally, the comparative ὡς introduces our the word we’re most interested in: σκύβαλον. This is probably the best example of a context where the English expletive is contextually analogous. With that said, a contextually appropriate gloss does not inherently make σκύβαλον itself an obscenity, as discussed and illustrated in the previous several posts.

Another metaphorical usage is found in Sirach 27:4.

  • Ἐν σείσματι κοσκίνου διαμένει κοπρία,
    οὕτως σκύβαλα ἀνθρώπου ἐν λογισμῷ αὐτοῦ
    In the shaking of a sieve, there remains the excrement.
    Likewise, a man’s σκύβαλα in his rational argument.

This proverb from Ben Sira presents a comparison that evokes the same agricultural context discussed previously (Σκύβαλον in agricultural contexts). In the sifting of the grain, the chaff flies away and the grain falls through. Only what’s large enough to not fit through the sieve remains: the refuse, dirt and droppings of the threshing oxen. The ellipsis in the second half forces readers to workout the comparison alone. The result is that Ben Sira does not have a particularly high opinion of man’s deliberative/rational prowess. The brief chaismus (ἐν-NP, Predicate, NP / NP [Predicate] ἐν-NP) correlates λογισμῷ with σείσματι κοσκίνου. This is striking since, in the agricultural context, the grain is the appealing portion that the farmers wants from the process. But Ben Sira effectively says that for humanity, there is no grain.

On the semantics of this instance, the contrast between κοπρία of the cattle vs. σκύβαλα for humans might imply a preference (albeit certainly not a firm one) for human excrement as a referent over against animal.  This has been common throughout many of the examples discussed, with the exception of the non-metaphorical farming contexts.

Perhaps the most complex data in this group of metaphorical/non-referential occurrences of σκύβαλον, however, is the handful of cases where the word is used in papyri military lists as proper names. Moulton & Milligan cite P.Oxy 43, Military Accounts: Watchmen of Oxyrhynchus (295 CE), as one example and there are another two in P.Oxy 2338 (AD261/2-288/9), which is also a military list.

There are two possible explanations for these examples, which might seem in opposition to each other on the face of it. Either these are real and wholly inoffensive personal names at the end of the third century CE. Or these are examples of a military that uses shaming as a tool for keeping soldiers in line, where soldiers get designated by their compatriots or officers as Σκύβαλος as a rather public and documented insult as the result of some misbehavior on their parts. The reason these possibilities are not mutually exclusive is that they represent a logical path of lexicalization, wherein a word that originally referred to excrement is extended to also be available as an expression of frustration, which in turn is (potentially) extended to function as a derisive nickname, which underwent semantic bleaching and became a normal personal name. We do not have clear evidence that this is the path that σκύβαλον took to arrive at this point, but it does function as a plausible hypothesis for how these sorts of examples came into being.

In terms of the significance of these data points for interpreting Paul, we come back to a point from before. There is little work on the structure of the category of obscenity and taboo in Ancient Greek. While we know much about taboo words in English and there has been research into taboo language in Latin, I’m not aware of any in Greek. Even with these last metaphorical examples, it seems clear, however, that the usage of σκύβαλον lacks sufficient correspondence with English taboo language to make a wholesale argument between English and Greek and the overlaps between the English lexeme shit and the Greek σκύβαλον is, at best, limited to a narrow domain of usage. The one does not mean the other.

Works cited

Antilla, Raimo. 2003. “Analogy: The warp and woof of cognition.” Pages 425-440. The handbook of historical linguistics. Edited by Brian Joseph and Richard Janda. Wiley-Blackwell.

Grenfell, Bernard P., et al. 1900. Fayûm towns and their papyri. London: Egypt Exploration Society.

Moulton, James H. and George Milligan. 1930. The vocabulary of the Greek Testament: Illustrated from the papyri and other non-literary sources. Hodder and Stoughton.

Sweetser, Eve. 1991. From etymology to pragmatics: Metaphorical and cultural aspects of semantic structure. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.