Excrement as Philosophers’ Stone.

Laudator Temporis Acti is posting excerpts from Robert Hughes’ Barcelona, and I couldn’t resist this one:

The earliest names for the two rivers that bordered the medieval city of Barcelona were the Merdança (shit stream) and the Cagallel (turd bearer), whose waters were totally unfit to drink by the fourteenth century and have remained so ever since. The first item in the invaluable collection of Versos Bruts (Coarse Poems, edited by Empar Pérez-Cors) was written in the early thirteenth century and takes the form of a discussion between two nobles, Arnaut Catalan and Ramon Berenguer V, count of Provence and Cerdanya, concerning a hundred noble ladies who went to sea in a boat and, becalmed, got back to shore by farting in chorus into its sails. One of the durable favorites of Catalan verse was Vicent Garcia (c. 1580-1623), rector of Vallfogona, a village in the Pyrenean foothills, who wrote sonnets in imitation of Luis de Góngora and Francisco Gómez de Quevedo, but whose real popularity depended on his burlesques, banned by the Inquisition. They included such works as To a Monumental Latrine, Constructed by the Author in the Garden of his Rectory and On a Delicate Matter, which roundly asserts that no person, however low, not even a Portuguese, could have anything bad to say about shit. Excrement, Garcia wrote in a Dalí-like transport of enthusiasm, is beneficial, the sign of our true nature, a kind of philosophers’ stone that “the pharmacists of Sarrià / contemplate night and day.” In doing so he evoked the peasant origins of the cult: shit as the great fertilizer, the farmer’s friend, the emblem of root and place.

(I like “not even a Portuguese.”) This is, of course, connected with that great Catalan Yuletide tradition the caganer, for which see this post. And a very happy new year to all Hatters!


  1. Happy new year to you too! The last few posts (I’m thinking especially of those concerning humble doughs), and their still-evolving comment threads, are classics of the Hattic genre.

  2. I agree!

  3. Trond Engen says

    How many rivers in how many cities have been bestowed with similar names? The unassuming stream that run through the center of my little town is named Lortebekk “turd creek” on old maps. It’s been underground since the 19th century, but its name may still be used for the town by those living in the neighboring town a few kilometers downriver.

    And this of course the new year post. May it bring sound bowel movements!

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    Bareka nɛ ya yʋʋmpaalig, Zupibig la nidiba!

  5. David Eddyshaw says

    There is a mushroom species called saag bĩndu “rain shit” in Mooré. “Qui pousse après la pluie”, says the dictionary, so you can see where they’re coming from. I don’t think it’s edible … perhaps nobody has tried.

  6. The perfect post to start the new year 🙂 Bon any a tots!!

  7. Lycoperdon, ‘wolf fart’, eats tasty.

  8. David Eddyshaw says

    In Classical Nahuatl, as all Hatters know, “gold” is teocuitlatl “god shit.”

    (This suggests, to my mind, that the lot of a Mexica god may not have been as enviable as that that of of a Greco-Roman god in certain important respects. It may perhaps account for their notoriously bad temper.)

  9. I hear that Tremella mesenterica, witches’ butter, also colloquially known is some places as witches’ cum, is edible but tasteless.

  10. David Eddyshaw says

    edible but tasteless

    A misnomer, then.

  11. A Happy New Year to those who are already in 2024 and to those who, like me, still are waiting to get across the finish line (celebrating in Vancouver this year, so probably one of the last hatters to make it across).

  12. David Eddyshaw says

    “Yeast” in Kusaal is dabin “beer shit”*; this causes me the occasional double-take when reading the Kusaal Bible translation.

    * Bread, unlike beer, is an exotic foreign foodstuff.

  13. With a start like that we’re in for a helluva ride in 2024. Least bespattered by year’s end is the winner. Best of luck to all players.


    “Yeast” in Kusaal is dabin “beer shit”

    Of which Latin faex, faecula and the like are no doubt attempted calques. Lees (or trub in the case of beer): the excrement from fermentation, formed of dead yeast, etc. (I note that dregs and drek have no mutual connexion. Tsk.)

  14. This is one of my all-time favorites and though it has no connection to any river, the other thematic thread of this thread is given a dominant play. View by Alexander Galich, first Russian then translation (mine, no energy to make it even a doggerel). Happy (or at least, not crappy) new year!

    Александр Галич

    “В Серебряном Боре, у въезда в Дом отдыха артистов Большого театра, стоит, врытый в землю, неуклюже-отесанный, деревянный столб. Малярной кистью, небрежно и грубо, на столбе нанесены деления с цифрами – от единицы до семерки. К верху столба прилажено колесико, через которое пропущена довольно толстая проволока. С одной стороны столба проволока уходит в землю, а с другой – к ней подвешена тяжелая гиря. Сторож Дома отдыха объяснил мне:

    – А это, Александр Аркадьевич, говномер… Проволока, она, стало быть, подведена к яме ассенизационной! Уровень,значит, повышается – гиря понижается… Пока она на двойке-тройке качается – ничего… А как до пятерки-шестерки дойдет – тогда беда, тогда, значит, надо из города золотариков вызывать…
    Мне показалось это творение русского умельца не только полезным, но и весьма поучительным. И я посвятил ему философский этюд, который назвал эпически-скромно:


    Все было пасмурно и серо,
    И лес стоял, как неживой,
    И только гиря говномера
    Слегка качала головой.
    Не все напрасно в этом мире,
    (Хотя и грош ему цена!),
    Покуда существуют гири (bis)
    И виден уровень говна!

    “In Serebryany Bor, at the entrance to the resort for the actors of Bolshoi Theater there is a clumsily hewn wooden pole. Carelessly and roughly, with a painter’s brush the pole is marked with numbers from one to seven. A small wheel is attached to the top of the pole through which threaded a rather thick piece of wire. On one side of the pole the wire goes into the ground and on the other side a heavy weight is suspended from it. The resort’s guard gave me an explanation:
    – And here, Alexander Arkadyevich, is a shit-meter… The wire, you see, is connected to the sewage pit. When the level rises, see, the weight goes down… So long as it’s rocking on mark two or three, it’s alright. But when it gets to a five or a six, then it’s trouble, then we have to call a pumping squad from the town. I found this creation of a Russian handyman not only useful, but also very instructive. And I dedicated to it a philosophical sketch, which I named both epically and modestly:

    A VIEW

    The day was cloudy and gray
    And forest stood as not alive
    And only weight of shit-o-meter
    Was gently rocking left and right.
    This world is not completely lost
    (Though only penny it is worth)
    While weights are there to predict
    Where is the level of shit.

  15. “Yeast” in Kusaal is dabin “beer shit”

    I imagine some similar inference was one of the arguments raised against pain mollet when Paris doctors voted on 24 mars 1668 that levure de bière was unhealthy.

    (Or maybe it was 13 août. That’s the date quoted by Wikipedia, following here. Others with the earlier date include here and here.)

  16. May the shit level decrease this year!

  17. *šiwä woďə aδəta!

  18. David Marjanović says

    I don’t think it’s edible … perhaps nobody has tried.

    Caca de luna is routinely fried or barbecued and eaten in Veracruz (Mexico). That’s not mentioned in the en.wp article, which does, however, offer a delightful variety of other names for the same species.

  19. Trond Engen says

    Is English toadstool named after the furniture?

  20. J.W. Brewer says

    Now I’m imagining some culture in which it is widely understood that the first defecation of the New Year and its accompanying circumstances are highly predictive of whether the year will be a good one or not, and thus much energy is devoted to trying to ensure that the circumstances surrounding ones first-defecation-event are as auspicious as possible.

  21. a delightful variety of other names for the same species

    The euphonic “Jasmine Mold” would be a great name for a character in a… I don’t know in what. Or what kind of band it would be.

  22. Stu Clayton says

    Is English toadstool named after the furniture?

    It’s not named after the thunderbox, if that’s what you’re asking. I think the idea is that it is of a size which would tempt a weary toad to have a sit-down on his way to the International Jumping Bowl. But it is not a restroom.

    A milking stool is not named after the furniture, it is the furniture. There’s no rest for milkmaids.

  23. Mahatma Gandhi was very observant of his bowel movements, and also the colour of his urine. He thought a darker colour was auspicious. That’s something I read decades ago and probably couldn’t find a reference for now.

  24. Is English toadstool named after the furniture?

    Surely. Stool ‘chair’ goes back to OE. Toadstool goes back to ca. 1400. Stool meaning ‘privy’ is first attested about 1400 as well. It’s not until ca. 1600 that ‘privy’ became ‘poo’. Toadstool makes more sense to me as something a toad would be just sitting on.

  25. Keith Ivey says

    And the word “toadstool” isn’t applied to the sorts of slimy fungus that might resemble excrement, only to ones that have a stalk and a cap, like a one-legged stool.

  26. David Marjanović says

    It’s not until ca. 1600 that ‘privy’ became ‘poo’.

    Interestingly, the same happened in medical German, e.g. Stuhlprobe “stool sample”. Did anything comparable happen in medical Latin – to sedes, say?

  27. Trond Engen says

    Yeah, it was more a line of association following David’s Mooré saag bĩndu “rain shit” “Qui pousse après la pluie”. What proverbially pops up after rain in Norwegian is paddehatter; “mushrooms with a hat-shaped top”, lit. “toad hats”.

  28. David Marjanović says

    Same “toad” word as in Dutch. Another LG loan?

  29. Trond Engen says

    The standard dictionaries don’t say so, so probably not.

    I’ve seen (and probably also related) some attempts to connect it with ta(:)d(de) as a contamination or irregular development.

  30. I happened to learn today that “excrement”, in Shakespeare’s time, meant anything that came out of the body, including hair. So, in “Love’s Labour Lost” the line “Dally with my excrement” probably does NOT mean “play with my shit”, but “play with my hair” (or beard)!

  31. belatedly: happy gregorian zero, everyone!

    but mostly chiming in to recommend luis felipe fabre’s Escribir Con Caca, which a friend just translated: Writing With Caca. and of course to make sure that these two classics are in the mix.

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